The robots are coming, there`s not much doubt about that. The question is: Are they welcome? And how do they actually make profits for the employer? Do they create profit in the same way as a human worker?
But first the robots themselves … In 10-20 years in all likelihood, your coffee in Starbucks will be served by a robot. Cars, trucks and trains will be driven by robots, and hotel staff could be replaced by robots that look like humans. They will speak several languages, serve you at the dinner table, carry your luggage, make your bed, and so on. The role of the human worker, and there won`t be many of them even in a big hotel, will be to monitor the robots via CCTV cameras and step in if necessary. Robots, which already carry out many jobs in the factories, will be stepping out into the open … soon.
Estimates vary but the consensus seems to be that around 50% of all jobs are susceptible to being replaced by robots, or some kind of Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine. A third of graduate-level jobs may be replaced by machines or software according to a report by the International Bar Association in the next 20 years or so, at least in the countries leading this revolution (China, USA, Germany, Japan and Korea). These include all kinds of jobs; clerical, administrative, farming, manufacturing, transport. Even within the medical and legal professions, robots and AI can replace much of the work done by humans today, and yes they will be able to perform surgical operations.
These predictions are no longer fanciful or open to doubt. This “industrial revolution 4.0”, as it is called now, is actually already here, and developing fast. It is being driven, of course, like everything else under capitalism, by the necessity to increase profits, by the market. To the employer, a robot which doesn’t go on strike, and doesn’t need food, clothing, shelter, holidays, medical treatment or psychological understanding, is likely to be cheaper in many cases than the cheapest worker in the under-developed world. The International Bar Association report gives figures: A German car worker costs more than £34 an hour, while a robot costs between £4 and £6 an hour. “A production robot is thus cheaper than a worker in China”, the report says.
If this takeover of jobs by robots, AI machines and software is allowed to proceed via market forces and the drive for profit, then governments will be obliged to re-write the laws to meet all the ramifications of the changes. They might have to decide what role human beings will play in this new society, and which jobs should be banned to robots – caring for children perhaps and/or caring for the terminally ill. New employment legislation will be needed, and a new kind of society will emerge because of these changes.
Commentators on this new society seem to agree that the gap between rich and poor will become even greater than it is now. “Many people will end up unemployed, whereas highly qualified, creative and ambitious professionals will increase their wealth”, says the Bar Association report. And there will be more monopolies, it says.
In an article in Truthout entitled The Robot Economy: Ready or Not, Here it Comes, JP Sottile writes: “As more and more jobs are turned over to AI, robots and algorithms, more and more wealth will accumulate in the hands of those already at the top of a steep pyramid. Like the pharaohs of old, these masters of the universe will profit as the cost of labour declines precipitously thanks to the robots they employ”.
Most, if not all, of the scenarios conjured up by commentators take it for granted that robots and AI machines are unstoppable. They will come about because that is the way of this world – the corporations rule and it is in the interest of the corporations to go down that route, to make profits, regardless of the interests or indeed of the wishes of most human beings. In other words they see the direction of travel of the private corporations as the primary driving force in the world. Human beings will have to adapt.
And most people are not likely to welcome these new machines threatening their jobs, especially as it comes at a time when regular jobs are already disappearing fast. The number of people in zero-hours jobs is already approaching 1 million, and there are now nearly 5 million who are self-employed, many of these forced out of previously well-paid “proper” jobs. The organised, unionised work-force is being shattered by these developments, and forced into risky low-paid employment, under-employment or unemployment.
Anthony Hilton writes in the London Evening Standard that “A tidal wave of change is about to engulf the economy and transform the working lives of every man woman and child in the country – with the possible exception of the Queen … It is this country’s biggest challenge – but there is not a mention of any of it anywhere. Millions will be thrown out of work…”
He is talking about the advance of robotics, AI, machine learning etc. He castigates the political parties for ignoring the issue: “But the best our politicians can do to further their claim to be fit to lead our country is to mouth slogans from the age of steam and demonstrate that they are firmly rooted in a world that no longer exists … Are they ignoring this coming revolution because it is just too difficult, or are they silent because they are ignorant of it?”
But there is a question that needs asking about all this. How do robots create profit? What is the mechanism for extracting profit from a machine? How is it manifested, and how will that profit be measured – and taxed?
According to the Labour Theory of Value, as developed by the classic economists and by Marx, it is labour (or labour time) that determines the value of a commodity. A worker sells his labour power to the employer. By carrying out the work required, the worker is adding value to that commodity. By his labour, the worker is not only earning his wages, but something over and above that, a surplus value, which the employer takes. That surplus value has to cover the cost of the raw materials, the depreciation of the machines in the factory and certain other costs. What is left after that is profit which can be re-invested in the plant, dished out to shareholders, or spent on lavish holidays for the owner, his family and friends. The relationship in other words is one where the employer exploits the labour power of the worker in order to keep his factory going, and make profits too. It follows that the lower the wages paid to the worker, the higher the eventual profit. But does the employer exploit the labour power of a robot in the same way?
There is a further law: the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The employer has to pay out wages to his workers (variable capital v), but he also has to find the capital to pay for the raw materials, tools, energy, depreciation of machinery, the factory buildings etc. (constant capital c). The rate of profit is the ratio of the surplus value over a period of time to the capital consumed over the same period. So the rate of profit is surplus value divided by variable capital (wages) + constant capital (raw materials etc). RP = s/ c + v), where RP is the rate of profit, s is the surplus value, c is the constant capital and v is the variable capital.
It follows that as capital accumulates, that is, as capital investment per worker increases (as it almost inevitably will with automation), so the rate of profit will fall unless the surplus value goes up too. The only way the capitalist employer can maintain his rate of profit is by increasing the surplus value, that is, by increasing the rate of exploitation of his labour force, because his constant capital costs will almost inevitably increase.
It is this basic analysis that explains, fully and adequately, the periodic crises of the capitalist economy over the years, including the crash of 2008. As the rate of profit falls towards zero, so the whole system tends to seize up, as without profits it collapses. There are of course other factors that can delay or mitigate, to an extent, these crises, such as new technology, cheaper labour in some countries, recurrent wars, and the development of new markets that have made it possible for the system to keep going, but the laws keep on re-asserting themselves. The dream of the representatives of capitalism, and of the corporations that rule the world today, is for limitless growth, of constant expansion—which of course is impossible, because the resources of the world are finite. The system is crisis-ridden because of these contradictions.
But to return to the labour theory of value. Should robots be included under constant capital like other machinery? If so, the constant capital value for the employer will be so large, it will be almost impossible for him to maintain his rate of profit.
Can robots create profit like a living human worker does? Should they be considered in the same way as a living human worker, at least insofar as they can carry out labour tasks and make profits for the employer? Should they be seen as the saviours of the capitalist system, at least for a while, because their power to labour is so cheap? Can they postpone a final reckoning?
I don`t know the answers, but it seems to me they have to be considered as profit-making machines, akin to human beings at that one level. A robot will, after all, be doing the same work as a human worker. It will replace him. Because it is cheaper to the employer, the surplus value can remain buoyant, at least for a while until the competition catches up by building another work-place with even more robots and even fewer living humans.
Imagine a car factory with one human worker sitting in front of computer screens, monitoring the robots making the cars. It makes no sense to pretend that the employer can only make profit out of that one worker. Of course his competitors will always try to go one better, perhaps to replace the one worker with a super robot, so there are no humans working in the factory. Cars are still being produced however, the costs can be calculated, and a profit can be made once the cars are sold. There is, however, the question of who will buy the cars – there will be so few workers employed and making money that most of the cars will be unsold. Robots don`t need cars.
As for the question of whether these machine-workers are welcome, that would depend who they are working for. It is naive to imagine that the ordinary people have any choice in the matter. Robots, artificial intelligence and the new technology associated with them are coming, in fact have already come. They offer corporations, the likes of Amazon, Tesla and countless others, increased profits by not employing humans. They are likely to de-stabilise the world, by dividing it into the very rich and the rest, thereby tipping us into ever-greater conflict and war.
There is also, of course, the potential to put them to good use, to employ them in the interests of people, for society in general, to do away with hum-drum routine back-breaking labour, to work with and for the people. But that scenario would involve replacing the capitalist for-profit system with a not-for-profit co-operative system. There is no way these new machines can be welcomed under the current system.
Like all this amazing new technology, it can be used in two ways; to make profits for the few, or to work for the people.